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Review: Kleber Mendonça Filho’s ‘Aquarius’

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A series of black and white photos from Brazil’s Boa Viagem beach of yesteryear opens Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius and inaugurates a prolonged dance with nostalgia. It proliferates in the film’s narrative span of some 30 years, from flashbacks of leisurely nocturnal car rides on the beach with 8-track tapes playing in the background, to birthday parties and generations of sexual encounters on a family heirloom of a cabinet. Such remembrances of things past are not merely incidental for a feature that has generated controversy in Brazil’s political present.

In Aquarius, memories — of places, moments, music and lovers — balance imminent struggles to live well. Each recollection holds the story of a scar or persisting trace, like the grooves in the vinyl that its protagonist, Clara, collects. Good or bad, what is valuable about them is their material connection with the present. Conflict arrives when a handsome developer escalates attempts to buy, or otherwise coerce, Clara out of her beachside apartment in Recife so that it can be demolished to make way for a luxury condominium high-rise. A luminous Sonia Braga further ties the film to more than 30 years of Brazilian cinema history along with a delightful soundtrack that oscillates between bossa nova and anglophone rock. A child of the sixties — as the film’s title suggests — and descendent of at least one feminist activist from that earlier moment of turbulence in Brazilian politics, Clara refuses to relinquish her home.

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The ensuing tug of war is haunted by poetic reminiscence, as if the sensuous body of an aging Braga could foil gentrification by itself. Clara is the last holdout and sole occupant of the building, The Aquarius. Her children and her neighbors are ready for her to sell, but she stubbornly refuses in righteous indignation. She prefers her current apartment — which has been in her family for generations — to a new building in the same way that she values her records more than her MP3s.

But Clara makes for an ambivalent underdog. A professional music critic and member of Brazil’s cultural elite, she employs a loyal domestic from a less privileged neighborhood and owns a fair deal of real estate herself, highlighting deeper layers of stratification in Brazilian society along lines of race and class. Lamenting the corruption and nepotism of Recife, she engages its methods to fight the developer. Her quest thus walks a fine line between being a virtuous microcosm of a national battle between local interests and rampant globalization, and an exercise in impetuous narcissism. Kleber Mendonça Filho undermines nostalgia, then, even as he presents it as the most obvious antidote to global capital’s short-term memory problem — its willingness to indiscriminately uproot people and places in the service of profit margins.

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At Cannes, the film’s cast and crew used their appearance to publicly criticize the undemocratic ousting of Workers’ Party President Dilma Roussef. The move generated enough of a polemic that it likely pushed the feature out of Oscar contention. Much like that gesture, Aquarius shines most brightly in its presentation of instances of strong-willed, resilient and vivacious feminine solidarity. Sonia Braga brilliantly embodies the battle-tested, still-willful and desirous Clara, and Mendonça Filho beautifully frames two distinct chapters of her life where past and present intermingle and collide.

Aaron Boalick (@FlixCritic) is a freelance film critic in New York City and Adjunct Faculty in the Film Division of Columbia University. 

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